Shutdown: Breaking the Social Contract and Wrecking the Country

There is an old joke about a tortoise saying to a hare, “you can run but you can’t hide.” So it used to be with politicians running for elections and relying on constituent donations — thus sensitive to voter sentiment. Not any more. Not when both major parties are bought and paid for quite legally by agenda driven large out-of-state interests and wealthy private donors.

Much more than a parliamentary system, U.S. federal governance is dependent on goodwill. The filibuster custom, the independence of the House, Senate and Executive, the right of each state small and large to two senators are all designed to give the weaker party, the minority and the governed, a measure of protection from oppressive majoritarianism.

On the other side of the coin, the rules demand foresight, gentlemanly forbearance and loyalty. That is what the founding fathers assumed, a common loyalty among legislators towards the proper functioning of the system and the nation as a whole. It has required goodwill, otherwise the dilution and distribution of power and the concomitant rules can be a feast for an obdurate obstructionist.

The proper way for a loyal opposition to behave, if they oppose legislation already passed by both Congressional bodies and signed into law, is to place it before the people at the next election. If the people agree, the opposition will win a majority, and they can then change the law.

But that is not the path chosen by Republicans in the House. They have chosen to stop the functioning of the government. It has caused needless inconvenience, furloughs, associated private sector layoffs, loss of income, shutting down of services, national parks, zoos, etc. It is also a punch to an already groggy economy.

Successful governance is the ability to get things done. Whether or not the U.S. government is able to govern effectively is no longer in doubt. It cannot. It is unable to respond to the needs, or work in the best interests, of the vast majority of the electorate. The same applies to state governments — succumbing, for example to ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), the corporate initiative disguised as an information source to influence and control legislation.

The result of misgovernance is captured tax dollars by interests whose primary objective is not the well-being of the taxpayers, but self-enrichment. In the scandalous financial services industry, the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the subsequent gambling binge on mortgage-backed securities and unregulated derivatives led to losses covered by taxpayers in the billions and serviced by the Fed in the trillions.

Not that the gambling has ceased. Last year, J P Morgan Chase reported losses from derivatives mushrooming from the original $2 billion to a not insignificant $6billion. The bank is run by Jamie Dimon described by the President as “one of the smartest bankers we got.” He was also Sanford Weill’s protege and right-hand, as they lobbied hard to repeal Glass-Steagall so Weill could merge his insurance and brokerage businesses with Citi.

Another egregious example is the privatization of public goods, sold in the name of efficiency and cost savings without concrete evidence to support the claims. The mantra has been drilled into an unquestioning public over the course of several decades. But the inherent conflict of interest is seldom referenced.

A state-run correctional facility, for example, is obliged by financial and public interest to try to ensure inmates do not return. Consequently, vocational training to learn a trade, on-site work education programs, etc. are instituted. A private prison, on the other hand, has a distinct interest in keeping the cells occupied. Hence the intense and successful lobbying for harsh sentences. ‘Tough on crime’ resonates with the public and the ‘three strikes you are out’ law leaves judges without discretion. So the ludicrous 20-year and more sentences for drunk driving, or stealing a TV costing over a $1000 edging it into a felony. The most egregious example was a 50 year sentence last May for Willie Smith Ward, a repeat offender/drug addict, in Waco, Texas, who stole a rack of ribs worth $35.

The privatization of hospitals has also wreaked havoc. Many former community hospitals are now run by giants like the $ 33 billion (in revenues) Hospital Corporation of America, who have contrived to form local monopolies. Sky-rocketing prices are one result; unnecessary tests, lab work and x-rays are another. The bill is paid by insurers and Medicare, ultimately funneled to the individual. In addition, the corporate focus on the bottom line squeezes costs. As a result, fewer nursing staff and harried nurses, overworked doctors, and longer wait times mean inferior service. The logic remains inescapable, in that profits are at best in-consonant, and at worst inimical to the interests of the patient. One final note: Richard Bracken the CEO of HCA earned $46.3 million in 2012.

Whatever the merits of Obamacare, an ineluctable consequence is 49 million new potential customers for the insurers. These will have insurance, although for some high deductibles may keep them away from the doctor’s office. The real issue is not just insuring people but actually delivering medical care, especially preventive care, which reduces overall cost. Other countries have proven this, particularly the French who are widely acknowledged as having one of the best healthcare systems.

That U.S. infrastructure is crumbling is not new news. The latest (2013) American Society of Civil Engineers’ quadrennial report rated it an overall D+. When the needs of the country, the economy and the individual dovetail, leaders are presented a unique opportunity. However, it takes political will to fight vested interests, bring together public and private actors and investment sources to pull through such a large enterprise. In the 21st century, it should naturally include lower carbon footprint high-speed rail networks on a par with Europe, Japan and China. So far our leaders have failed.

The failing K-12 education system for which teachers have borne the brunt of the blame threatens the next generation. But the accusers fail to explain why affluent neighborhoods continue to have excellent schools if teachers are the principal cause. In fact, school financing through property taxes penalizes economically disadvantaged areas. Add to that, severe sociological problems including absentee fathers, nutritional deficiencies, addictions, unemployment stresses, and the children entering the school doors as well as the teachers trying to teach him, have several strikes against them. It is worth a mention that according to a new report in Science (August 30, 2013), financial concerns can damage students’ reasoning abilities. In education too then our leaders have failed.

Throughout history, the rentiers, the rich and powerful have always raided the treasury, but there was a social contract. The rest were able to manage a decent living, have hope for the future and better prospects for their children. That contract has been broken.

Arshad M. Khan is a retired professor. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Arshad M..